US warship sends vague message in South China Sea

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/25 14:28:39

A US destroyer, the USS Dewey, reportedly carried out a "freedom of navigation operation" (FONOP) in the South China Sea Wednesday, sailing within 12 nautical miles of Meiji Reef, part of the Nansha Islands.

This FONOP marks the US' first since Donald Trump's inauguration in January. According to previous reports, several requests by the US Pacific Command for such operations were rejected by the new president.

We still don't know what the intended purpose was of the FONOP by the US Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, or what it did when it was near the reef. For instance, we don't know how close it sailed to the island, whether it passed by at average speed or even stopped, or whether there were further provocations such as battle drills.

As of Thursday night Beijing time, the Pentagon has yet to offer a comment on this development. The Department of Defense released a perfunctory statement saying that the US military carries out operations in the Asia-Pacific every day, which, they claim, are in compliance with international law and do not target any country.

Neither has the US Department of State nor the White House offered any comment, in comparison to the former Obama administration, which often assumed a higher profile when the US Navy engaged in such operations.

It was expected that the US Navy would continue carrying out so-called FONOPs during the Trump era. How much negative impact they cause will be decided by the degree of their provocative actions and the stance of the US military, foreign affairs and administration sectors in releasing the news. If Washington hypes up the operation, it means it intends to cause more turmoil in the South China Sea.

Since the Obama era, the Philippines and Vietnam have slowly improved relations with China. There have been gradual signs of stability in the South China Sea as Beijing and Manila have started negotiations over their prolonged territorial dispute. The US Navy can hardly sustain the pretence of their FONOPs. 

It seems that while former US president Barack Obama launched his rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, Trump does not intend to withdraw from the region. Although observers believe Trump's interest is not the South China Sea, the US military and US allies will keep pressuring him for more US involvement. The Western Pacific is the reason behind Trump's military spending boost. On this, Trump will find some common ground with the military.

The South China Sea's strategic scenario is favorable to China. China has been building islands in the South China Sea, while US warships sail close by occasionally. There is not much they can do about each other's actions. The US is repeating its challenges toward China, while Chinese strength is growing.

China's rise to power in the South China Sea is based on international law and the increasing strength of the country. The US, however, has faced increasing difficulty in projecting its power. It is inevitable that Washington will become fatigued if it engages in a long-term struggle with Beijing.

China should learn to maneuver with the US in the South China. Power is not the paramount factor there; wisdom and strategies matter more. The focus of the China-US relationship is not the South China Sea. Nor is it the East China Sea. Currently, both countries are behaving in a rational way. Obama left an empty legacy despite his ambitious rebalancing strategy, while a pragmatic Trump is looking for his own ways to leave his mark. He will gradually realize that the South China Sea is not a place where the US can flex its muscles. The nine-dash line is a matter of dignity to the Chinese people.

China and the US, two major powers in the world, need to have a broader vision together. US military officers who serve at the frontline should adopt a more prudent attitude.

Posted in: EDITORIAL

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